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Why Catalogues Survive in a Digital Age

In the era of e-commerce, printed catalogues remain an important tool for a range of fashion retailers.
Stack of catalogues | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom Some of fashion's best-known retailers, including Neiman Marcus and J.Crew, have built significant businesses on the backs of their catalogues. But in the age of e-commerce, catalogues can seem like a relic from a less-connected time.

For one, sending heavy catalogues through the post is no longer the most efficient way to transmit product information. What’s more, customer interactions with physical catalogues are much harder to measure and mine for data than user engagement with online advertising and e-commerce sites. And yet, catalogues remain a vital tool for many retailers.

The Neiman Marcus Group publishes 100 different catalogues a year under its Neiman Marcus and Horchow brands, with a combined circulation of over 37 million. By itself, The Book, its flagship “mag-alogue”(a hybrid catalogue-meets-magazine with editorial-style content that goes beyond a mere directory of products) is mailed seven times a year to a database of just over one million consumers. “I think you've seen a lot of people abandon catalogues, but they've either come out since and said, ‘It was a bad decision, it was premature,’ or they've just gone back to catalogues,”said John Koryl, president of stores and online at Neiman Marcus.

Neiman Marcus Group’s overall catalogue circulation has dropped over the past five years. Koryl declined to reveal by how much, but noted that this was a result of “more efficient and effective mailing practices” and not a shift in strategy. “I can buy, quite frankly, a thousand display ads for what a catalogue costs, but we're trying to win the battle for luxury fashion mindshare, which leads to market share. We're trying to make sure we're spending on a per customer basis in the most efficient way possible. Catalogues scratch the itch that certain customers want,” he said. “We're not going to run television commercials because we appeal to such a small set of the total US and international audience for luxury fashion. We have to work in a very targeted way. Thankfully, catalogues can still be very targeted.”

Not all retailers are quite as bullish about the power of catalogues, however. Indeed, some have seen their catalogue circulations drop dramatically. “The amount we print has reduced substantially. In 2002, we produced 30 million catalogues. Now we send out less than a million,”said Dan Rubel, group strategy director of Shop Direct, a UK multibrand online fashion retailer whose brands, including Littlewoods and VeryExclusive.co.uk, generate annual sales of £1.7 billion (about $2.5 billion). Catalogues now account for about 10 percent of the retailer’s business, generating £170 million in sales in 2014.

But despite Shop Direct’s strategy — “to transform what was a catalogue business into a world class digital retailer”— the business has, according to Rubel, “continued to make catalogues because enough people continue to want them. We now view catalogues as a very small part of our wider marketing and CRM campaign.”

For Neiman Marcus, its catalogues also helped to lay the foundation for a hugely successful direct-to-consumer e-commerce business and still play an important role in driving consumers to shop online. “With catalogues, you have a data or insight mindset. In 1999, when Neiman Marcus started its web business, which is now 24 percent of our total business, the only way they were able to get such a jump start on everyone is that it already had a different relationship with all its vendor partners. We had this entire infrastructure in terms of fulfillment. We had the care centre in place. It was the foundation for what is now the world's largest [luxury] e-commerce business,” said Koryl. “I think the biggest change would be that there's a much larger drive to web focus.”

Indeed, the combination of catalogues and e-commerce can be much more powerful than either channel alone. “If you look at the conversion metrics of somebody who does or does not receive a catalogue, as you can imagine, the more educated customer, familiar with our lens of what luxury fashion is, has a higher conversion rate —even if they migrate online,” explained Koryl.

British clothing retailer Boden is also assessing how to connect its physical catalogue with its digital initiatives. “We are innovating with segmentation, personalisation, size and frequency to keep up with the changing nature of life in 2015. Having a single customer view is key— and we have developed a sophisticated, holistic customer database. We are therefore able to match all of our purchase data with behavioural browse data and understand the channel and device habits within. This means that we are better able to make our catalogue and digital activities work together,”said Matthew Hiscock, director of global marketing at Boden.

Catalogues can also be powerful brand engagement tools. “The catalogue is an amazing way of showing our customer curated product imagery, which is hard to replicate online or in email form. We are also able to give our ranges an editorial viewpoint, which is becoming increasingly important. The challenge we face is finding the right mix of relevant printed material to excite and engage the customer whilst complementing the digital experience,” added Hiscock. “We really value the tactile experience it gives our customers. We know it’s a powerful tool and is particularly loved by our best customers who really engage with it.”

In 2013, American retailer J.Crew released The Style Guide, a 'mag-alogue' containing an edit of its most fashionable products, curated, in part, by J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons. The J.Crew business is rooted in traditional catalogues and the company, in 2013, distributed over 40 million physical books. But with increased production values, editorial-style content and higher-profile writers, the company has turned its catalogue into a brand advertising tool as well as a sales driver. Its precise impact remains unknown, however, as J.Crew declined requests to comment for this article.

British retailer Jack Wills, which operates 80 points of sales and had a 2013 turnover of about  £120 million ($181 million), uses its catalogue — branded a 'Handbook' — as both a positioning tool and a driver of e-commerce sales, shipping over a million of catalogues a year, some of which have become collectable items amongst teen fans of the brand.

“Catalogues, such as The Book for Neiman Marcus and The Magazine for Bergdorf Goodman, have a very important role of bringing the brand to life in a very tactile way. There is a niche in the market that the catalogue serves, and it's not like the customer is aging out. It's really across the age demographic spectrum that catalogues play a role,” said Koryl.

Koryl declined to reveal the proportion of the Neiman Marcus business is driven by catalogues, but added: “Even on the raw economics, I don't see the catalogue going away in my lifetime. It is still a material part of our business.”

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